Posted by David Somerset - March 27, 2007 | News

Protesters occupying Rep. Vito Fossella’s office (Irving Silverstein / Staten Island Advance)

Staten Island, NY – March 23, 2007. 5 antiwar protesters were arrested on March 23, 2007 for reading the names of the US war dead aloud at Congressman Vito Fossella’s Staten Island district office – after congressional staffers refused to call Fossella to setup a meeting with the activists. Fossella, son of liberal Democrat Frank Fossella, is an ultra right wing Republican who is known for his pro-war politics and his history of voting against veterans’ benefits.

Staten Islanders Elaine Brower, Tom Good, Sally Jones and Barbara Walker were arrested while reading the names of US military personnel killed in action in Iraq at Fossella’s Staten Island office Friday, March 23. They were charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass. Ben Maurer, who resides in Bensonhurst – part of the 13th Congressional District, was also arrested. The five were part of a Peace Action Staten Island (PASI) “occupation” of Fossella’s office. Early Friday morning the activists spoke with Sherry Diamond, Fossella’s scheduler, informing her that they carried letters from constituents addressed to the Congressman and requesting a meeting with Fossella. When informed that Fossella was in Washington the protesters indicated a willingness to wait in the office until he returned. Diamond invited the protesters to make themselves comfortable. The protesters began reading the letters from constituents aloud.

Sally Jones reads a letter from a constituent (Devra Morice / Next Left Notes)

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Outside Fossella’s office, members of Peace Action held a vigil with flag draped coffins and signs including one asking why Fossella supports Bush’s war but opposes veteran’s benefits. According to Peace Action Vito Fossella has a very poor record as regards ‘supporting the troops’, a position he professes to embrace. Fossella voted against healthcare benefits for National Guardsmen in Iraq (the so-called backdoor or poverty draftees). {1} He also voted against educational benefits for veterans, {2} against pay raises and Iraq service bonuses for active duty personnel {3} and against funding for prosthetic research. {4} Protesters also demanded to know why he voted against supervision of defense contractors – instead offering his support to Halliburton, a major contributor to his election campaign {5}.

Three and a half hours into the occupation the protesters were arrested by members of the Staten Island Task Force, a borough based unit of the NYPD. Despite an earlier understanding with officers from the NYPD that the protest could continue as long as it remained in the public portion of Fossella’s office, five protesters were arrested and charged with trespassing on what they regard as the public’s property.

Tom Good, a Silver Lake resident, is cuffed (Brian Kelly / Next Left Notes)

“Fossella is able to avoid his constituents rather well – sending form letters in response to letters expressing concern about his extreme positions and so on – this is why we physically came to his office – an office paid for with our money,” said arrestee Thomas Good, an organizer with the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS). “It seems that Fossella prefers having his constituents arrested to listening to their concerns. I am certain he knew of our visit – but he made no effort whatsoever to talk to us or have his staff speak to us – to respond to us in a meaningful way. I believe that he is out of touch with ordinary Staten Islanders and that this is no accident: we can’t line his pockets the way his wealthy corporate sponsors can. It is not news that Craig Donner, Fossella’s press secretary, raised some eyebrows when the Staten Island Advance did a story that revealed that Donner’s Virginia based firm, ‘Danton Communications Group’ runs Fossella’s campaigns while Donner works on the Congressional payroll as Vito’s press secretary. Donner sees nothing wrong with this – and Fossella retained him after the story broke. Supporting war profiteers would seem to fit in nicely with Fossella’s broad interpretation of ethical standards. Unfortunately Vito’s schedule is so full, what with Halliburton and all, there’s no room left for his constituents” he added.

Barbara Walker, Silver Lake, reads a letter from a constituent (Devra Morice / Next Left Notes)

Barbara Walker, a Granny Peace Brigade veteran and longtime Peace Action member, expressed her dismay that while Fossella avoids his constituents and his responsibilities people are dying: “If we are serious about lessening the threat of terrorism, we need to deal not only with pursuit of terrorists but also with cause and effect with regard to our policies and actions. Our military must be brought out of Iraq. At this very moment, people in Iraq are dying for nought because of our military presence there. Funds approved should be approved for the purpose of deployment of our troops out of Iraq.”

John Lawrence, chair of Peace Action Staten Island, also participated in the action, playing a role in organizing both the office occupation and the protest outside the office. He objects to the idea that sending the troops into an untenable situation is somehow ‘supporting’ them: “This is a war for power and greed. We do not ‘support our troops’ by asking them to risk their lives and limbs in an unjust war. The long standing under funding of veterans programs made evident by the recent scandal at Walter Reed Hospital and the epidemic of veteran homelessness belies US politicians’ concern for our troops and their families.”

Elaine Brower of Great Kills reads a letter from a constituent (Devra Morice / Next Left Notes)

Arrestee Elaine Brower feels the civil disobedience at Fossella’s office was a ‘landmark’ event: “To disrupt ‘business as usual’ in Vito Fossella’s office was a first and necessary step to draw more attention to his deception. The occupation of his office was a landmark event on Staten Island. This step was not taken lightly by those who participated and those who supported it. We are residents and love our hometown, just like anyone else who lives here,” she said. Brower has a personal interest in the Iraq War – her son is a Marine. “As a resident of Great Kills and a mother of a United States Marine Sergeant, who has served 2 tours of duty overseas in the ‘War on Terror’ I decided to take direct action to stop a third redeployment to this illegal and immoral occupation. It is time that our Congressman listen to the growing number of constituents who oppose this war in Iraq. Last year my son deployed to Fallujah for one year on the ground. He, once again, fought bravely and watched many of his friends perish. It is a war of aggression for oil and profit, and is in direct violation of the U.N. resolutions and Nuremberg Principles. That makes this current Administration responsible for war crimes, and those that are complicit, such as our Congressman, also accountable for killing not only our soldiers but over half million Iraqis.”

The five PASI activists were held at the 122nd Precinct while their prints were run. They were later released with desk appearance tickets. Brower vowed to fight on, as did all of the arrestees who have a court date of April 23. On Monday, March 27, Brower and Sally Jones – an arrestee and former chair of Peace Action – returned to Fossella’s to formally deliver the stack of letters from Fossella’s constituents and to take flowers and chocolates to the secretaries who were present during the occupation. PASI activists related that the male staffers hid in their offices while Fossella’s secretaries were left to face the protesters.

Organizers of the action report that they are satisfied with the action overall and will address the first amendment issues attendant to the arrests in criminal court. Movement for a Democratic Society organizer Tommy Miles, also a Staten Islander, said: “What was great was that the folks arrested were normal Staten Islanders. When you open the Advance and see a working class guy wearing a Carhartt jacket and an ill fitting tie reading the names of dead Americans in Vito’s office, while Vito’s off in DC, it’s pretty easy to guess who most Islanders would support.”

Ben Maurer of Bensonhurst demands to see his Congressman (Brian Kelly / Next Left Notes)


{1} Fossella voted in favor of stripping the Tricare provision of the 2006 Defense Authorization Bill – which would have made healthcare coverage available to thousands of National Guard active duty and reserve.
{2} Fossella voted against an amendment to the Perkins Vocational and Technical Act of 1998 (S. 250 – introduced in 2006) would have increased veterans’ access to education benefits.
{3} Fossella voted against the Stupak amendment which called for a living wage for active duty military and a $1500.00 bonus for those serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
{4} Fossella voted against the Stearns Amendment to H. 10 (2005) , which sought to increase funding for prosthetics research.
{5} Fossella voted against HR 1362, the Accountability in Contracting Act, aka The Waxman Bill, which sought to increase supervision of government contracts.